At the core of many political ideologies is the fantasy of the “body politic.” People project the experience of their own bodies into the idea of a body politic. “Identification” with a nation means the relocation of the self: from human body to body politic.
Identification with a nation means that the self-equates itself with a gigantic entity “out there”:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
What a magnificent feeling! To imagine that one is bound—equivalent—to a massive politic unit. How grandiose! Nationalism is a culturally acceptable form of megalomania.
Nations are conceived as immortal bodies: entities that “live on.” Historians document the lives of these immortal entities. Each body politic possesses a biography.
“History” seeks to preserve these entities. We pretend that what happened long ago has not stopped happening. Historical writing documents the immortality of these entities—they “live on.” It’s nearly impossible to abandon this fantasy.
Political violence makes sense only if we conceive of nations as real entities. The individual dies so that the nation may live. Small bodies are sacrificed in the name of these larger bodies.
The idea that it is “sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” is not so powerful as it once was. However, to understand the history of the 20th century—the orgies of killing and dying—one must place nations at the heart of our inquiry. Why do we “believe in” these entities, despite the monumental destruction they have caused?
The Shadow posed the question: “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of man?” Collective forms of evil—political mass-murder—cannot be separated from nations. The beloved object—and the evil, destructive object—are one and the same.
Just as John Lennon asked us to “imagine there’s no country”—so I imagine that it is possible to “awaken from the nightmare of history.”
What would it mean to separate from the idea of one’s nation? This is the unkindest cut of all: to abandon the sense of omnipotence; falling back into emptiness. One becomes a shrunken version of one’s former self.